Written by: Sandor Stern (screenplay), Jay Anson (novel)
Directed by: Stuart Rosenberg
Starring: James Brolin, Margot Kidder, and Rod Steiger
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Houses don't have memories."
After a busy decade at the movies, the devil’s last noteworthy cinematic appearance found him taking up residence in the big screen adaptation of 70s’ most infamous haunt. An admittedly seminal export from an era that crafted its own unique brand of haunted house film, The Amityville Horror is a particularly dusty offering whose luster has worn off as later years scraped the paint on George Lutz’s myth. While plenty of horror films have taken liberties with “true events,” the Amityville case had a particular, almost transcendent resonance that launched anything with an immediate association into nigh-iconic status (as time wore on, this too would also deteriorate, as 90s video store shelves stocked with a bunch of loosely connected sequels will testify).
The Amityville Horror wasn’t the first time working class America was terrorized by demonic spirits, but both Jay Anson’s novel and Stuart Rosenberg’s adaptation presented it with such hysteric conviction. Unfortunately, the latter has been especially undercut, as, underneath all the faux-verite window dressing, there’s just a thinly constructed haunted house that wilts in the face of its overcooked melodrama and its insistence on propping up the Lutz fable. Ironically, it’s that conviction that ultimately undermines the film since a more ambiguous approach may have been more serviceable.
But let’s back up to those facts which can’t be disputed: as the film’s opening recounts, Ronald DeFeo, Jr. butchered his entire family in cold blood in their house at 112 Ocean Avenue. Some thirteen months later, George and Kathy Lutz (James Brolin and Margo Kidder) moved into the house, and the film chronicles the 28 days of horror supposedly endured by the family. Patriarch George bears the brunt of the demonic load: not only does he become mysteriously ill with each passing day, but he’s also overcome by a malevolent force goading him into repeating history by committing more familial bloodshed.
Any time I revisit The Amityville Horror, I want to like it more than I actually do, especially since I have fond (or maybe not so fond) memories of watching it at a young age and being terrified out of my mind (it doesn’t help that my dad would often follow it up with a prank of some sort—he once threw a wadded up paper towel at me from across the room almost sent me jumping from my skin). But the years haven’t been too kind to this one; don’t get me wrong—it’s suitably solid and serves as a nice sampling of the era’s haunted house fare, but it’s just a pretty good film living in the shadow of an intriguing legacy that only became infamous as the truth was revealed over time. It might be apt to say that I like the idea of The Amityville Horror more so than the film itself.
Which is not to say the film doesn’t succeed at the basic level of being sort of creepy. Taking the events at face value reveals some stock haunted house stuff done skillfully, it not a bit listlessly. There’s a laundry list of token scares collected under one roof: the daughter’s creepy imaginary friend, the disembodied voices urging George to madness, the blasphemous iconography, the gruesome “accidents,” the hysterical, almost subconscious reactions to anyone who visits (especially those of the cloth), the bumps in the night. If there’s a trope to be wheeled out, Rosenberg does it with as much gusto as possible on the obviously limited budget (though the cheapest gag—the pair of glowing, red eyes that could have been at any dime store—might be the film’s most iconic and effective sight). When paired with Lalo Schifrin’s haunting score and the house’s ominous presence, the film is intermittently effective as a series of creeps and jolts.
However, it truly does just feel like an obligatory collection with very little escalation—while there’s a modicum of subtle build-up in relation to the family, the demonic forces pretty much come roaring out of the gate. When Father Delaney (Rod Steiger) arrives to bless the house, he’s met with a horde of flies and a growling voice imploring him to leave, which leaves little room for ambiguity later—it’s obvious that The Amityville Horror is siding with the Lutz family and intends to reveal the full, unrelenting horror of those 28 days with little regard for structure or intensification. If not for the overdone theatrics, it’d almost feel like a dry, documentary style recounting of facts and events: first, the priest went fleeing in terror, and then the nun sped off from the joint before puking her guts out. Then one of the kids gets his fingers smashed in a window before the dad loses his mind and the family finally decides to get the hell out of Dodge (as the final frame informs us, the Lutz family never returned for their belongings and moved to another state).
Such an approach is at odds with the performances, most of which leave little room for nuance or subtlety. Brolin fares best by giving one of the genre’s better turns as a gentle family man turned deranged psychopath. His transformation is evident in every fiber of the performance, from his sinister countenance and gait to his booming, harsh voice. However, Brolin never allows that hint of goodness escape, lest viewers forget what’s at stake—one minute, he’s savagely punching his buddy in a bar, the next he’s apologizing for his behavior because he’s out of his mind. But even he can’t resist succumbing to the melodrama surrounding him (the “I’m coming apart” scene is particularly silly by the actor’s own admission): Kidder is mostly fine but a little obviously put-on as a 70s housewife, but several sequences serve up overheated acting pyrotechnics. The impromptu council between Stieger and his fellow priests (including Murray Hamilton, here basically reprising the role of Mayor Vaughn but in the cloth) particularly finds everyone trying to out-act each other by shouting him down, and the film employs a loony shortcut to uncover the house’s history when a Lutz family friend (Helen Shaver) turns out to be conveniently sensitive to paranormal activity.
So the film wheels out more familiar stuff—disgraced witches, desecrated Indian burial grounds, portals to hell—to serve as a super obvious text rather than a rumbling subtext that could have been more disquieting. That America was besieged by demons in the 70s is without question; it’s a little easy to attribute those demons to such unholy sources, but it’s also quite appropriate that the film acts as a last bastion of the 70s’ attempt to reestablish the familial core. In the Lutzes, we find a joint family outrunning typical strife—unpaid bills, mortgages, children adjusting to a stepfather—but all of it is submerged as incidental background noise since the film assumes all would otherwise be well. In reality, traditional values had been torn apart by two decades of real horror that had no qualms about reflecting that disintegration onto celluloid. The Amityville Horror taps into that disintegration before refracting it—when the Lutzes haul off into the middle of the night (with their dog notably in tow), they’re not only on the run from whatever forces rest inside the house—they’re fleeing back to the relative, cozy sanity of a stable family unit.
Again, so much of that is subtext, though; despite the presence of so much top-tier talent, I can’t help but feel that The Amityville Horror is about two steps (and one Brolin performance especially) removed from an ABC Movie of the Week. It’s almost quaint and even a little corny in its earnestness (particularly when Schifrin isn’t ominously scoring the hell out of every scene). Rosenberg stops right at the threshold of cloying in an attempt to retain just the right amount of menace (the jarring cuts that inject the DeFeo murders into the Lutzes’ tour of the house are noteworthy), but the film is perhaps unexpectedly silly at times, especially considering the house’s grisly history (it’s no surprise that those events would serve as the loose basis for the film’s superior sequel in 1982).
That this film somehow turned this story into a cottage industry speaks to just how much the Lutzes’ story gripped the nation. It doesn’t hurt that it was situated in an iconic house (those quarter round windows are the amenities that launched a dozen movies), which quickly became the star over the course of the franchise. Audiences will find the first three films collected in Scream Factory’s new Amityville Horror Blu-ray collection, which marks the second time the original film has been given the high-def treatment. If Scream sprung for a new transfer, it’s not immediately obvious, though that’s not such a bad thing: MGM’s previous release was just fine, and this looks to be similarly sharp and without any distracting artifacts or digital manipulation. Both the original stereo and a 5.1 remix are presented in DTS-MA form, and the latter is another impressive remaster that gives Schifrin’s score a more menacing presence. This collection ports over all the stuff from MGM’s old special edition DVD, including an audio commentary with parapsychologist Hans Holzer, “For God’s Sake, Get Out!,” a 20 minute retrospective featuring interviews with Brolin and Kidder, a ten minute interview with Schifrin, a stills gallery, radio & TV spots, and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
And while that’s nice, it’s even nicer that Scream didn’t consider the sequels to be afterthoughts; I’ll have more in-depth reviews later this week for both Amityville II and Amityville 3D, but rest assured that Scream has done right by these two. Part II sports about an hour’s worth of special features and a commentary with Alexandra Holzer, while part 3 gets a recollection with actress Candy Clark and the usual promo materials. It’s also presented in its native 3D, which may explain the odd “ghosting” effect in the transfer—it’s not unwatchable and likely owes to the source (the DVD looked similar if I recall correctly), but is occasionally distracting. Still, it’s a solid package overall for what most would consider to be “the good Amityville movies” (also known as the ones that don’t involve haunted lamps, clocks and dollhouses) and one that any fan of the franchise will want for their shelf. In most collections like this, it’s the original film that’s worth the while, but the first Amityville only served as a launching point for a more fascinating and truly scuzzy follow-up. It certainly boasts the mythology and the unforgettable iconography that’s immortalized it to an extent, but its foundation is a little creaky, if not just sturdy enough. If there’s a portal to hell lurking just beneath, everyone deftly tiptoes around it. Buy it!
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